May 25, 1997

Looking For The Weird? Try Underwater

Karen Schwartz Associated Press

It starts with a yearning for something different. A chance to boldly go where few have gone before. A longing for an adventure, a challenge, or a chance to see weird critters.

It’s the world of scuba diving, a sport that lures its participants from one end of the globe to another. And it’s booming.

An estimated 6 million people in the United States are certified divers, 2.5 million of whom went diving within the past year. The revenue generated by the dive travel industry, through air fares, hotels and diving services, is estimated at $1.7 billion annually.

In the 12 years that Lee Scruggs, of Loveland, Colo., has been diving, the sport has taken her and her husband, John, to many of the Caribbean Islands; to Belize, Costa Rica and Honduras in Central America; to the Pacific islands of Hawaii, Fiji and Papau New Guinea; to Palau, Truk and Yap in Micronesia; to Indonesia and to the Red Sea.

Why does the 53-year-old woman travel the world in order to jump into the water for an hour at a time?

“To go to a tropical island and get out of Colorado in the wintertime,” she quipped.

But there’s more to it. Once underwater, surrounded by colorful fish, sculpted corals and majestic pelagics, “You have to pinch yourself sometimes. It’s so beautiful and quiet.”

Susan Hirsch, 35, of Providence, R.I., was certified only two years ago. Since then, she’s been diving in Belize, Honduras and Hawaii. In the cold waters of Narragansett Bay near her home, “You’re lucky if you can see the flip of a flounder in the sand,” she said.

But at an exotic locale, “It’s like being in a cartoon - the colors and shapes and textures.”

“It’s an experience that is completely out of oneself. And I don’t have to worry about the stresses of job and day-to-day life,” said Hirsch, a lawyer for her state’s child welfare agency.

Carl Roessler, who is considered the granddaddy of dive travel specialists, said he’s seen a lot of changes in the 31 years that his See & Sea travel has been around.

Better equipment and easier access to Caribbean islands have made the sport much more popular. As a result, more and more novice divers are heading to the Caribbean where the waters are warm, currents calm and the resorts well-equipped.

“Diving off the East or West Coasts, while wonderful for enthusiasts, is sometimes daunting for beginners,” he said. “However, if they can go to a beautiful tropical island in beautiful toasty water with a minimum of equipment to lug around - it’s a very positive selling experience.”

But that influx of new divers to the traditional dive destinations is pushing more experienced divers to go farther afield, sometimes spending their entire vacation on a dive boat-cum-floating hotel - called liveaboard - that cruises to remote reefs and sometimes never stops at land until the week is up.

“As these hordes of eager beginners are going to the Caymans and Australia, the more experienced divers are going on liveaboards to get farther and farther away from the crowds,” Roessler said.

Five years ago, there were perhaps 40 liveaboard boats, while today, there are 150 to 200, he said. Some of the boats are little more than converted ferries or fishing boats, while others were built from the keel up as dedicated dive boats, with air conditioned cabins, film processing, and even hot tubs on board.

Roessler is ready to go the next step, and has equipped a Grumman HU-16 Albatross seaplane with guest rooms so that he can fly four to six people to remote destinations near Palau. For $6,000 per person per week, the diving elite will use the plane as their home and as their diving platform.

But even for less ingenious travel agents, the dive market is a lucrative niche.

“People start with beautiful creatures on reefs,” Roessler said. “Then they get bored with those and move up to schooling hammerheads” that are at locations like the Cocos Islands off Costa Rica and the Galapagos.

“We keep them for 25 years,” he said of diving clients.

And dive vacations are not cheap. A trip on a live-aboard can run $1,500 or more per week, plus air fare and land costs.

Some tour companies cater to divers with special interests, such as sunken wrecks, caves, whales - even sharks.

“Fifteen years ago, if people thought they were going to see sharks on their diving vacation, you couldn’t sell it,” Roessler said. “Today, if I can’t assure them they’ll see sharks, they won’t buy it.”

So 50 years after Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan invented a device called the Aqua-Lung that allowed people to breathe underwater, many travelers have decided they don’t just want to see the ocean’s creatures on the Discovery Channel, they want to see them for themselves.

“There’s a whole heightened interest in the oceans and preserving the oceans,” Wilmink said. “A lot of people have the feeling if they don’t get under there and see it, they might miss it.”

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